Ribfest moving to Wheaton? DuPage County Fairgrounds could be new home for event

If the smoke signals coming from Wheaton are any indication, Ribfest organizers are cooking up a plan to bring the summer tradition to a new DuPage County venue.

After 32 years in Naperville and a COVID-19 hiatus, the 2022 edition of Ribfest could serve up slow-cooked barbecue goodness at the county fairgrounds in Wheaton.

The four-day festival also is slated to move to an earlier start date, transitioning from a Fourth of July celebration to a Father's Day weekend cookout for the masses.

Organizers with the Exchange Club of Naperville have not yet announced the changes. But a county board committee on Tuesday endorsed the proposal for the fairgrounds to host Ribfest in June, pending formal approval by city officials in Wheaton.

Up until 2½ years ago, Ribfest was synonymous with summer life in Naperville. Perhaps no other event embodied the suburban festival more. A winning recipe of barbecue competition, concerts, carnival rides and charitable causes made the grassy lawns of the city's Knoch Park a carnivore's playground.

The musical lineup became as varied as the barbecue sides. Over the years, Hootie and the Blowfish, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, country legend Loretta Lynn, the "Club Can't Handle Me" rapper Flo Rida, and Pitbull, "Mr. Worldwide" himself, have all performed at Ribfest.

Renovations to Knoch Park forced organizers to look for another site after a final hurrah in Naperville in 2019. COVID-19 derailed what was supposed to be the first Ribfest in Romeoville.

Then last August, the Naperville Park District board of commissioners declined a request from the Exchange Club to have Ribfest return to the city as a two-day event at the Frontier Sports Complex on Naperville's south side. At the time, park district officials cited wear and tear on the grounds, among other reasons.

But the county fairgrounds offer ample parking and space for crowds to spread out. Ribfest would run June 17-20, coinciding with Juneteenth, a paid state holiday in Illinois.

  Patrons line up for barbecue during the 2019 edition of Ribfest in Naperville's Knoch Park. Joe Lewnard/, July 2019

According to initial estimates, up to roughly 15,000 people are expected to attend per day.

County board members on a public works committee said they want to accommodate the event. The county leases the 42-acre property to the nonprofit DuPage County Fair Association.

"I think this is exactly the use that we want out of the fairgrounds," board member Jim Zay said.

The fair association is now working with the Exchange Club on the logistics. Traffic would enter and exit from County Farm Road through the DuPage government campus to keep cars off residential streets around the fairgrounds.

"We're in a support mode to make sure that we have a safe, good event on our fairgrounds," said Jim McGuire, the fair association's executive manager.

Ribfest would add to an already busy calendar at the fairgrounds. After two years of pandemic-related cancellations, the county fair, an event of similar magnitude, is set to return July 27-31. The fair draws about 20,000 per day.

"It'll be great to get the community back together," McGuire said.

Steven Tyler opens with "Sweet Emotion" during the final day of the 31st annual Ribfest in Naperville. Daily Herald file photo

He doesn't yet know the details of Ribfest music entertainment. But a proposed layout shows the main stage would be set up on the fairground's northern corner and a potential car show across from a county parking garage.

The plan is to have a couple of locations for alcohol sales, similar to the beverage options at the fair.

Wheaton officials must issue a special event permit and liquor licensing for the festival to make the move to the fairgrounds. City Manager Mike Dzugan said organizers have submitted a permit application. So far, there's been a staff evaluation, Dzugan said, and no issues were raised after that review.

"It'll be good for the area," Dzugan said.

Wheaton Mayor Phil Suess said he's aware of the proposal but hasn't yet been approached by Ribfest organizers.

"It's a good idea, and let's see what happens," he said.

Exchange Club leaders and a spokeswoman did not immediately return phone calls Tuesday about Ribfest planning. The civic club has raised millions of dollars through Ribfest for charities supporting survivors of child abuse and domestic violence.

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